Understanding the environment: Complexity and chaos
Understanding the environment: Complexity and chaos

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Reading 5.3: Freedom from our mental limitations: simulation models

We have been increasingly liberated from our cognitive limitations thanks to innovations in information and communication technologies. The first symbolic representations painted on cave walls gradually evolved into writing, and this form of recording, storing and sharing information became accessible to everyone who could read as a result of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1450. The invention and increased use of computers, combined with the speed through which information can be communicated through systems, introduced the next quantum leap in information and communication technologies towards the latter half of the twentieth century. But this innovation did not limit itself to the spread of written information. American linguist Walter Ong has proposed that communication has moved beyond the written to a ‘second orality’, where information is now communicated using a range of electronic media including radio, television, telephone and, increasingly, the internet (Ong, 1982). Rather than depend on individuals’ cognitive abilities and oral communication skills (as we did before the invention of writing), or the quality and availability of books, we now have the potential to use a vast range of information and communication technologies to convey and to develop our mental models.

Although verbal and visual modes of communication are very powerful tools in identifying and understanding the structures and functions of systems that surround you, there is a natural limit to how far you can use these tools in learning about the behaviour of systems in the real world. Many systems practitioners see the mapping out of system parts and functions as only the first step in a comprehensive systems approach involving dynamic mathematical models. Computer-based simulations of the behaviour of complex systems are now at the centre of any decision making of significance. For example, scientists, politicians and the public have learned a great deal about the potential impacts of climate change through observing the outcomes of general circulation models (see Figure 5.1). Software programs, such as Stella and Simile, now allow their users to drag and drop components of a system dynamics diagram onto a window and describe using simple equations, or even by drawing a graph, the relationship between components. The level of mathematical ability required is basic, and the way the models work is quite intuitive.

Figure 5.1
Figure 5.1 Global mean temperature change simulated by the climateprediction.net model (source: Climateprediction.net, 2007)

The technologies that allow you to develop and explore models of your surroundings can be empowering, participatory and liberating. But they can also be enslaving, resource intensive and divisive. If models developed using computers remain in the hands of ‘experts’, where they are used as black boxes from which instructions on how we should lead our lives emerge, then we risk entering into a new era of techno-fascism. If instead these models are made accessible to the public, maybe as online portals where people can contribute to developing the models, providing the data and analyse the results, then we could well be on our way to radically transforming the way society as a whole learns and adapts to the coming challenges.

Gary Alexander provides a practical example of the use of computer systems to initiate a grass-roots shared understanding (Alexander, 2002). The starting point is the use of the ‘immediacy of the computer system to match wants and needs on a daily basis’. These systems already exist, with many local online schemes allowing people to give their no longer needed goods to other people free of charge – the Freecycle Network (http://www.freecycle.org/ ) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] is just one example. This simple re-establishment of community based systems using new technologies has endless possibilities. The development of Web 2.0 services, which you looked at in Block 1, could be the next quantum leap in the evolution of information and communication technologies, and as a consequence, the evolution of our shared understanding of how we affect and are affected by the world around us.

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